UK could be locked into Irish backstop, says Brexit legal advice
The UK could be locked indefinitely into the proposed Brexit backstop arrangement on Northern Ireland, according to the government's legal advice published on Wednesday.
The document, published only after the government was found in contempt by parliament for withholding the information, said there could be no unilateral withdrawal from the provision.
With Prime Minister Theresa May's withdrawal plan looking set to fail at a parliamentary vote on December 11, Downing Street tried to assuage MPs about the backstop.
This included floating the idea of giving MPs a vote before it could be implemented. However, hard right Brexiters dismissed the idea out of hand, indicating it made them more determined to rebel against the government.
In his legal advice, Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox said the agreement “does not provide for a mechanism that is likely to enable the UK lawfully to exit the UK wide customs union without a subsequent agreement”.
“Despite statements in the protocol that it is not intended to be permanent, and the clear intention of the parties that it should be replaced by alternative, permanent arrangements, in international law the protocol would endure indefinitely until a superseding agreement took its place,” he said.
“This could create a legal risk that the United Kingdom might become subject to protracted and repeating rounds of negotiations.”
The backstop has been seen as a major sticking point between both Leave and Remain supporters.
Under Prime Minister Theresa May's withdrawal proposal, Northern Ireland would stay aligned to some rules of the EU single market if another solution isn't found by the end of the transition period in December 2020.
The whole of the UK would enter a “single customs territory” with the EU with effectively no tariffs on trade in goods between the UK and the EU and some (though not all) trade restrictions removed.
However, Northern Ireland would remain aligned to some extra rules of the EU’s single market to ensure the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland remained open.
These separate regulations for Northern Ireland mean there would be some checks on goods entering the province from the rest of the UK. This idea infuriates hardline Unionist leavers because they do not want to see one part of Britain treated differently.
Remainers object on the basis that it forces the UK to obey EU rules without any economic benefits in return.
May needs agreement on the backstop because the EU will not agree to the transitional period and subsequent trade talks until it is in place.
Earlier on Wednesday Chancellor Philip Hammond warned that if May's deal was rejected, the UK could end up leaving without a deal or Brexit could collapse, leaving "half the nation feeling betrayed".
"I take the judgement that when there is a deal on the table that has very, very modest costs to the economy, which will allow us to move on as a nation both economically and politically, I judge that even narrowly, economically that will be in the best interests of the country," he told the Treasury committee.
In parliament, the second day of five eight-hour debates focused on security, with Home Secretary Sajid Javid warning of the potential risks from a no-deal Brexit if the government was defeated next week.
“An unplanned no-deal Brexit would mean an immediate and probably indefinite loss of some security capability, which, despite our best efforts, would likely cause some operational disruption when we leave,” he said.